What You Need to Know About Stormwater
Would you let your child play in a storm drain? Unthinkable, right? But if I let my kids swim in the Chesapeake Bay within two days of a summer thunderstorm, I am essentially doing the same thing.
CBF Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost. Photo by CBF Staff.
Water gushing into a storm drain carries pet waste, fertilizer, trash, and other contaminants. For the most part that polluted runoff flushes straight through the drain and into local creeks, rivers, and the Bay. It doesn't stop first at a treatment plant.
We call this form of Bay pollution stormwater. In some areas of the state, stormwater pollution is a primary culprit of fouled creeks and rivers. In Anne Arundel County, for instance, 94 percent of the phosphorus pollution, 37 percent of the nitrogen pollution, and virtually all of the sediment and bacteria in the Magothy River are the result of stormwater, according to a 2010 study by the county public works department.
That's a major problem, especially for a county such as Anne Arundel where the Bay and its tributaries play such a central role in the economy and the cultural identity.
We have made significant strides reducing pollution from other sources such as farms and sewage plants, but we've yet to get a handle on pollution coming literally from our backyards—and mall parking lots and highways, etc.
Stormwater harms not only the crabs and fish in the Bay, but it threatens human health. Public health officials caution Marylanders not to swim or come into contact with any surface water of the state for a full 48 hours after a significant storm, precisely because those waters may contain unhealthy bacteria carried by stormwater.
I don't know about you, but that makes me upset.
CBF is pushing for local governments to step up and improve their stormwater management systems. Historically, those systems are aging, neglected, and grossly underfunded. Across the country, an estimated 1,300 towns, counties, and cities have done just that—by collecting a "stormwater fee" to fund the work.
CBF supports a new Maryland law that requires the nine most populated counties plus Baltimore City each to establish—by July 1—a stormwater fee used only for updating stormwater systems. Each county determines the size of its fee, and also how it wants to attack the problem locally. Many jurisdictions have opted to use innovative "green infrastructure" that mimics nature to slow and treat polluted runoff at a fraction of the cost of old-fashioned retention ponds, pipes, and culverts.
At this time about half the counties have complied in good faith with that law. Others haven't. Frederick's elected officials are considering a fee of one cent a year simply to meet the letter of the law, even though Frederick's creeks are nearly all polluted, with much of that pollution coming from stormwater. Carroll is dragging its feet, as are some other counties.
Some dismiss these dedicated funds as a "rain tax." They aren't, of course. Call them a "pavement tax" if you like because they are based on estimates of how much hard surface a homeowner or business has on his or her property. Maybe we could call them a "flood protection" tax works since reduced stormwater means fewer flooded basements. Or call them a "crab tax" or "safe swimming tax" because that is what they are meant to protect.
I don't like paying taxes any more than the next guy. But I also want my children to be able to wade into the Bay, or a local creek, without worrying they will contract a stomach ailment, or worse.
And there are other benefits to these fees. Nearly 180,000 full-time jobs are expected to be created in the Bay watershed as a result of this kind of stormwater system upgrades. Montgomery County already has created more than 3,000 engineering and construction jobs. And nuisance flooding of basements and streets will decrease.
Summer is just around the corner. Many of us already are taking to the water to kayak, fish, and sail. Let's ensure those pastimes don't disappear with the oysters, become relics of a bygone era of clean water. If your county isn't already improving its stormwater system, let's insist on it.
Maryland Executive Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Learn more about the recent stormwater fee debate in Anne Arundel County here.